Geoscience Fieldwork – barriers to participation (Part 2 of 2)

Following on from Part 1. This was the second piece I wrote for the course. This one expands on some of the material from the first one – discussing Fieldwork explicitly in the language of Education and pedagogies. I particularly recommend checking out the reference list – there are lots of people publishing interesting stuff around geoscience education, particularly in regards to fieldwork (virtual or otherwise), diversity, barriers to participation, and best practices.

My student education practice primarily consists of field-based teaching on geoscience field courses ranging in length from 1 day to 2 weeks. This may seem incompatible with many traditional principles of curriculum design which tend to be applied to classroom or lecture hall environments, however many of those principles do still apply. For this discussion I focus on mapping training courses which tend to be 1-2 weeks in length and involve training students to produce geological maps and associated documentation, culminating in their independent production of a map. This taught exercise is a supervised precursor to an independent 6-week mapping dissertation which is required in a subsequent year of their degree. Thus there is a multi-stage constructively aligned process where students are taught to map, practice mapping in a semi-supervised context, and are then assessed on their independent work. This is what Healey (2005) (and the “Leeds Curriculum”) describes as research based learning – students are engaged in inquiry based activities in which staff are active collaborators rather than didactic instructors. This exercise is notionally also an authentic assessment, as it mimics the kind of work that graduates may do as part of a national geological survey (such as the British Geological Survey traditionally did) or a resource exploration company. However, this is an increasingly outdated model of what Geoscience graduates go on to do. The case can be made that modern geologists are significantly less likely to practice traditional geological mapping in an employment context and some have controversially argued that our educational focus should be elsewhere (Brodie, 2013). Nevertheless, it does still serve as an excellent pedagogical method in several aspects of curriculum design.

This curriculum is by definition a Project Based Learning pedagogical approach, or “learning by doing” (Dewey, 1897). Students are given a real world challenge (understand the geology of an area, produce a map) which is explicitly taught with a research-oriented design. Students are taught how to map at the beginning of the trip via a combination of direct instruction, iterative practice with formative and peer feedback, and managed small group and one on one discussions. Field teaching staff focus on an inquiry based style, emphasising that we’re not there to state facts about the geology, but instead there to train students in techniques which will enable them to gather data and come to their own conclusions. Students are asked to describe and interpret their findings, and often are then asked to defend those interpretations from criticism and challenging questions (Buddington, 2006). This Socratic method challenges students to think deeply about their evidence and reasoning behind their interpretations (Dow, 1999). This also has the effect of creating a “Community of Inquiry” style of learning (Garrison et al., 1999). Students work together in small groups in the field (for health and safety reasons, initially) and discuss ideas, debate interpretations and share skills. The less formal, more relaxed nature of the fieldwork setting also helps students to relax and get to know each other, forming strong communities of learning. Whilst educational, this also has the significant downside of occasionally normalising plagiarism and collusion. Students frequently express confusion about what is specifically allowed in this working environment despite being given explicit guidance on the topic (University of Leeds Library, 2019).

This inquiry based method proves very effective at the stated goals of training mapping students, but can prove to be extremely frustrating for some students. Those who are convinced that there is a “right answer” which they’re being deprived of find dealing with the uncertainty of this kind of fieldwork – where the research methodology being used and documented is what is assessed, not just facts – extremely demoralising and challenging. Staff frequently speculate that this difficulty stems from a secondary level education of rote learning and assessment-led teaching, promoted by certain individuals of questionable pedagogical qualification (Walker, 2012). The inherent uncertainty and ambiguity of results in geoscience fieldwork is an excellent example of a threshold concept which is difficult, yet transformative, in a student’s education. Some cognitive science research has actually suggested that these kinds of frustrations can actually be very effective at promoting learning. “Desirable difficulties”, such as applying knowledge in a new place (the field) or using tests as learning events (e.g. assessing work produced for the first time in the field) can aid in learning and memory recall (Bjork and Bjork, 2011). Some have, rightly, criticised minimal guidance teaching methods as being less effective than direct instruction (Kirschner et al., 2006). However, it should be noted that on these field courses students are provided extensive guidance and instruction on the methodological aspect of the exercise, which is in fact the desired learning outcome. Never-the-less this remains a challenge for educators, who may find it challenging to help students get over this intellectual hurdle, and even more so to maintain an environment of “desirable difficulties” in the face of module evaluation questionnaires which frequently express frustration about those same difficulties.

Overall, our field curriculum is often singled out in student feedback (MEQs, NSS, and anecdotally) as a defining high point of their degrees. Students make statements such as “it brought everything I’d learned together” and discuss how they only really understood geology in 3D once they’d seen it on a fieldtrip. I believe this highlights how effective our curriculum design is, following fieldwork students express far greater understanding and recognise that they’ve understood threshold concepts such as 3D thinking, uncertainty and the magnitude of geological time.

Assessment on this module is split between assessment of work produced in the field and subsequent refinement and presentation of that work as a final report. The fieldwork assessment has several components, principally a field notebook, map and cross section. All three are pieces of Authentic Assessment, which students could be expected to produce in employment. They also comprise work at multiple levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). The field notebook is largely descriptive, the function of the assessment is to determine the student’s abilities to collect data, make observations and accurately describe what they see within the context of their previous education on geological materials and concepts. Students should then demonstrate the ability to apply this data collection to come to conclusions (or hypotheses) about the geology of the area, synthesising this information into an interpretation. First class students should also demonstrate the ability to critically assess their own work with regards to data quality, ambiguity and determine what additional information would be required to falsify or confirm hypotheses.

The maps and cross sections the students produce are “higher” up on Bloom’s taxonomy, involving the creation of new work assembled from students’ individual observations and interpretations to produce a comprehensive summary of the overall geology of the area. They are synoptic exercises which require the application of knowledge and skills from throughout their degree so far. Some educators (e.g. Didau (2015)) have criticised the uncritical application of Bloom’s Taxonomy, pointing out that there are aspects of learning where the “lower” levels of the taxonomy are more appropriate and that it is impossible to do “higher” level creative work without foundational knowledge. In a geological context this would be akin to expecting students to produce a map without having first memorised a great deal of knowledge about rock types and minerals which is necessary to interpret their observations. The comprehensive nature of field skill assessment allows assessment of student performance at all levels of the taxonomy, avoiding the frequent misapplication of Bloom’s work (or for that matter Biggs (1999)) which blindly assumes that “higher” level or “deeper” activities inherently lead to better learning. Instead, students work simultaneously at all levels – using all of their knowledge and skills together to build a complete picture of the geology. They are required and prompted to recall knowledge from earlier in their course, ultimately promoting the recall of this “basic” knowledge via a form of spaced learning (Xue et al., 2010).

This style of in the field assessment also proves very effective at capturing a true picture of student’s actual abilities without reference to texts, internet, or assistance. Field notebooks in particular are essentially impossible to plagiarise from another source. The staff on the trip know where the students have been, and what they’ve seen and been shown. Individuals from one cohort may make different observations than those on a trip the week before as tides or vegetation bury and expose different things. This essentially eliminates the threat of contract cheating, and minimises the potential for plagiarism from previous cohorts. Some degree of collusion may take place in the field, but given that each student must still record their observations correctly this is closer to a form of peer learning than academic malpractice. The subsequent interpretive work builds on these observations and directly refers back to them – again minimising the possibility of malpractice. Indeed, the assessment criteria weight the recording of information, and development and justification of a hypothesis more highly than getting the “correct” answer.

Following the field course students are tasked with completing a final field report, synthesising and presenting their findings in a formalised format (again, an authentic assessment simulating an employment activity). The process of writing this report is accompanied by small group tutorials (see attached Observation of Professional Practice form) designed to encourage students to reflect upon their own field practice and look forward towards their independent mapping projects.

In many ways field teaching has an inherent advantage in promoting student engagement. Students taking part in field courses are engaging in a form of place-based learning (Smith, 2002), an immersive experience where students are removed from their normal environment (and the distractions and routines therein) and set tasks in an unfamiliar environment which demands their complete attention. This gives educators an easier time in promoting student engagement, but in addition to the lack of distractions this environment is extremely conducive to learning. Geology field trips are intense immersive experiences where students spend 1-2 weeks in an environment saturated with geology. Rather than just a couple of lectures per day the students eat breakfast with fellow geologists, spend 7-8 hours in the field, dine with geologists, spend 2-4 hours of the evening working and then sleep only to begin again the next day. Even the accommodation is filled with geology – the Assynt field course stays in a lodge that caters primarily to geological field groups, is run by a geologist and has walls decorated with geological maps and rock displays. Some field courses are remote enough that the only human contact students have is with fellow geologists. Several students have remarked to me that by the end of the trips they dream about geology. Field courses have been described as “liminal experiences” where students go through a transformative rite of passage into becoming geologists (McCay, 2019). Not all aspects of this total immersion are positive however, many students find this intensive experience to be extremely challenging (Giles et al., 2020; Stokes et al., 2019). My personal experience has been that fieldwork can prove particularly challenging for students from a mental health perspective. The stress of impending assessment, challenging threshold concepts, and separation from support networks (and many other psychological stressors (John and Khan, 2018)) can precipitate crises – particularly amongst students with pre-existing conditions. Staff need to be conscious of this and trained to effectively support students in these situations.

In addition to mental health challenges there are of course physical challenges in geological fieldwork. Many students are not comfortable with urinating in the field, and individuals who menstruate or who require privacy to address medical needs find that fieldwork presents difficult challenges (Greene et al., 2020). These challenges are finally starting to be addressed by field trip leaders, but addressing this inclusivity challenge has taken longer than it should have due to entrenched attitudes of privilege.

Though we rarely march students to the top of mountains, field locations are typically in remote rugged terrain and often located off paths. Students with physical disabilities, or even just less experience with exerting themselves in the outdoors can find these trips very challenging (Stokes et al., 2019). In an effort to promote inclusivity there has been a lot of work done by a variety of institutions to attempt to recreate the fieldwork experience in more accessible settings. These range from fieldtrips in accessible terrain (e.g. on campus or along a road/permissive path) through to entirely virtual fieldtrips. Some examples of the former include classroom exercises common to many institutions, campus based exercises such as the University of Glasgow’s “Rock around the university” project (Dempster, 2020), and a University of Leeds field course named “Access Anglesey” designed specifically around accessibility (Houghton and Gordon, 2019). Virtual fieldtrips can be as simple as a webpage collection of outcrop and sample photos, or as complex as a video game or virtual reality experience (Cliffe, 2017; Houghton et al., 2015; Hurst, 1998; Minocha et al., 2014; Stainfield et al., 2000). The general consensus amongst the geoscience community is that these virtual substitutes are not yet equivalent to the real thing (Cliffe, 2017), but nevertheless are “reasonable adjustments” which can and should be made so as to minimise any disadvantages which students with disabilities may face. Stokes et al. (2019), in particular, extoll the benefits of maximising participation in fieldwork for students with disabilities and emphasise the importance of making best efforts to make all field trips inclusive and accessible wherever possible. The best practice, and the one which I personally support, is to maintain “real” field trips as the standard wherever possible, but modify them to enable participation from as broad a student body as possible. Virtual field trips have their place, but cannot be considered truly authentic assessments.

With regards to my own field teaching I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to develop my skills and abilities as an educator. I believe that it’s very important to look beyond the academic echo-chamber to look for best practices in other fields. The challenges we face in designing effective, inclusive and enjoyable field based curricula are not unique to the geosciences and have been examined previously in a variety of other fields. Outdoor professionals in particular have faced many of the same challenges we do, and as a result their publications contain a wealth of advice (Long, 2003). This includes a great deal of best practice recommendations on techniques for skills training. As part of my own continuous professional development I’ve been working on several Mountain Training qualifications for this very reason (Mountain Training, 2019).

I’m also keen to integrate research informed methodologies into my own field teaching. This ranges from practical teaching aids (Murphy, 2017) to incorporating new areas of thought, such as geoethical considerations (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2015). Some of these I have found to be effective teaching tools, such as the use of a laser pointer to contextualise my statements. Others, such as incorporating geoethics education I have found less useful, as it distracts from the main learning outcomes of field exercises. An idea which I have recently been exploring further in my own practice is that of suggested readings pre- and post-trip, which students can digest at their own leisure. Reading lists have a long history in university education, and despite simmering dissatisfaction have remained largely unchanged in that time (Brewerton, 2014). The typical critiques back and forth between staff and students about varying levels of engagement with them and unclear expectations often lead to their regrettable underuse (Stokes and Martin, 2008). Many have, rightly, criticised the canon of many subjects for lacking diversity in multiple senses (Greenbaum, 1994; Peters, 2015; Salami, 2015). In my own teaching I have been experimenting with “suggested” readings, rather than required reading lists. Required reading lists are a formalised process in the University of Leeds, recorded in the module catalogue and coordinated with the library. I am instead interested in encouraging students to read more widely than just the required course text, and have instead been peppering references to a wider array of readings, audio-visual media, and even fiction from diverse authors into my teaching. This is an effort to encourage students to develop a well-rounded education and a broader awareness of where their subject fits within the rest of society. Some of these recent recommendations have included: a webcomic about ecosystem collapse (McMillen, 2011), a TED talk on research in conflict zones (Al-Shamahi, 2018; Al Shamahi, 2019), a science-fiction novel on climate change and geo-engineering (Robinson, 2015), and a historical account of a contentious scientific debate in the area they do their fieldwork (Oldroyd, 1990). My hope is that some students will be inspired or intrigued by these shorter, accessible works and that will increase student engagement.


Al-Shamahi, E. (2018) Fossil fishing in the Yemen. New Scientist 237, 40-41.

Al Shamahi, E. (2019) The fascinating (and dangerous) places scientists aren’t exploring,

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Bjork, E.L. and Bjork, R.A. (2011) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society 2.

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Buddington, A.M. (2006) A Field-Based, Writing Intensive Undergraduate Course on Pacific Northwest Geology. Journal of Geoscience Education 54, 584-587.

Cliffe, A.D. (2017) A review of the benefits and drawbacks to virtual field guides in today’s Geoscience higher education environment. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 14, 28.

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Dewey, J. (1897) My pedagogic creed (1897). School Journal 54, 77-80.

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Geoscience Fieldwork – barriers to participation (Part 1 of 2)

This is an unedited version of an essay I produced as part of module 1 of my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice. I’m not massively proud of it as a piece of work, but I think it’s a reasonable discussion of some of the issues surrounding fieldwork – highlighting their value, as well as some of the challenges we face in Widening Participation.

I have an unusual educational role within the School of Earth and Environment, in that my teaching commitments are almost entirely field course based. As a result, very little of my teaching takes the form of the much maligned traditional lecture format (Powell, 2003, Mazur, 2009). Instead, I spend approximately 20-25 full days per year teaching in the field. This consists of a very wide variety of teaching and supervision activities, including small group teaching, short talks, demonstrating methods and skills, evening talks, and one-on-one supervision. Very few of these activities are passive or “shallow” in terms of their learning. Field trips in geosciences are generally synoptic exercises, applying classroom learned information in a real world context. Students are often asked to work completely independently to describe, interpret and summarise the geology of an area. A First Class field geology assessment shows evidence of developing thought, postulating hypotheses, and testing theories. In the learning theory terminology of Constructivists such as Biggs (1999), this suggests that geoscience education is already taking an optimal approach. Evaluating field teaching using the Kolb (1984) approach to learning as an experiential cycle would also look favourably upon our methods (Healey and Jenkins, 2000). Mapping field courses are a repeated cycle of geological observation (Concrete Experience), interpretation (Reflective Observation), forming hypotheses (Abstract Conceptualisation) and planning what additional data needs to be gathered to test those hypotheses (Active Experimentation). This cycle is repeated daily, and sometimes more often through the course of a field trip.

Despite learning theorists’ and the media’s apparent disdain for a didactic lecturing approach to education I personally believe that lecturing still has its place. In terms of density of information conveyed to an audience the lecture is beaten only by the written word. At some point, students require a grounding in the basics of a field to be able to apply that knowledge. We could not simply throw 60 students out of a bus in the Scottish Highlands and expect them to produce a meaningful geological map without the prior 6+ months of education on rocks, minerals, geological processes, etc. The constructivist approach to learning may still apply on a degree timeframe, but the lecture of basic knowledge is still a Concrete Experience required to get the students to the point where they can actively apply their learning. In my opinion it would be a misapplication of the pedagogical literature to omit this early educational stage.

Contextual knowledge as a foundation for learning is a subject which I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on as part of my own practice. Geoscience students utilise and develop several ancillary skills which are almost unique to the subject, and which are often unfamiliar to students prior to the degree. One of the unique and much publicised qualities of a geoscience degree is the importance and extent of fieldwork exercises undertaken by students. These are touted extensively by their proponents as excellent educational tools for developing spatial reasoning, team work, practical experience, and independent scientific thought (Petcovic et al., 2014, Kastens et al., 2009, Schiappa and Smith, 2018). However, this fieldwork builds upon a foundation which not all groups within geoscience education may have had the equal privilege of receiving. Geoscience field trips rarely, if ever, teach basic map reading and navigation skills, relying largely on the assumption that undergraduates either already have them or can pick them up rapidly whilst still keeping pace with their peers at recording data, identifying rocks, producing a map, and constructing and testing geological hypotheses. The reasons for this assumption vary, but are often down to the instructors’ own familiarity with maps and navigation acquired both through their own geoscience training as well as their pre-degree background. Liben et al. (2011) investigate this issue through the somewhat narrower lens of spatial reasoning skills as applied to a particular measurement commonly taken in the field. They come to similar conclusions that widely assumed levels of spatial reasoning are not universal amongst students, and that instructors should consider specific interventions for students deemed to be struggling in these notionally foundational areas. Liben et al. (2011) also specifically identify a gender gap in this particular area of ability, though they are cautious about their interpretation of its cause. This particular identified variation in learner ability is one of what may be many such areas of foundational skills or knowledge which is variable across a student population, and may correlate with gender or background. With the widening of the geoscience subject to encompass wider fields including chemistry, environmental science, and computational science, alongside the increasingly diverse populations studying geoscience degrees, this assumption of a level playing field of skills and existing knowledge needs to be re-assessed.

Historically, the majority of geoscience graduates have come from a fairly narrow demographic – predominantly male, predominantly white, and predominantly middle class or wealthier. This is, fortunately, changing rapidly at the undergraduate level, with cohorts becoming far more diverse in almost every sense. It is perhaps because of this less diverse history that traditional geological mapping training has been able to rely on prior experience of these skills. Map-reading abilities are a set of practical skills which are difficult to teach effectively in a classroom, instead they require outdoor practice as part of an extra-curricular activity (e.g. the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme), sport (e.g. Orienteering), or hobby (e.g. Walking and Mountaineering). Whilst high school students may have some experience of working with maps during A-Level (or equivalent) Geography or Geology (Note that A-Level Geology is not a core subject, and thus is often not taught in every school – often only those with additional resources) classes this experience is not extensive and often is only classroom based (Dalton, 2001). The outdoor pursuits mentioned above have participation rates which are also heavily demographically skewed – a Natural England (2015) study monitoring engagement with the natural environment concluded that “Those who were less likely to have taken a visit to the natural environment in the last seven days were those of BAME origin, those aged 65 and over, those with a long-term illness or disability and those in the DE social grades”. Sport England (2018) report similar results, with the least likely participants in Climbing, Mountaineering, Orienteering or Walking for Leisure in socio-economic classification being NS SEC 6-8 (i.e. “working class”), and in ethnicity being Black, South Asian or Other. Assuming a representative sample of the larger population, geoscience students from non-white or working class backgrounds are far less likely to have experience in outdoor pursuits and may not have had the opportunities that their more privileged peers have had to acquire these assumed skills. Thus assuming prior knowledge of these skills is a diversity issue, in addition to an educational one.

I would therefore argue that broadening the skill base taught as part of a geoscience degree is an important measure in improving diversity, equal opportunity and access as laid out in the University of Leeds values and strategic plan (The University of Leeds, 2015), the Office for Students strategy (Office For Students, 2019), Russell Group policy (Russell Group, 2015), etc.

With consideration to my own academic practice I’ve made a personal commitment to do what I can to combat this inequality. This has first taken the form of challenging my own assumptions and privilege. As a white male raised by middle-class parents I was introduced to outdoor activities very early in life, and have had to check my own privilege with regard to assumed knowledge and skills. As a moderately successful geoscientist I evidently have a reasonable level of the required spatial reasoning skills that are vital to field geology, a survivorship bias which may not be typical to all students (Liben et al., 2011). I now attempt to consider field trip briefings, and instructions in the field from the perspective of someone who is unfamiliar with such experiences. This has led to many realisations of skills and advice which goes unspecified to students. I have developed a short lecture for the first year Pembrokeshire field course on navigation skills and compass use to help students with the basics, expanded from the micro-teach I delivered during this course. On an even more basic level I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to pastoral care on field trips, ensuring that students who are unfamiliar with the environment or levels of physical activity have the time and advice needed to help them. Additionally I have started to undertake external training in skills and activities which are complementary to geoscience education, such as walking and navigation qualifications (Mountain Training, 2019). These provide alternative perspectives and feature curricula targeting other audiences. As such there are many tools and techniques which may be applicable to my own teaching, indeed my micro-teach session was based on one such technique. The heuristic navigation exercise I used was modified from the training I received for my own Lowland Leader Walking Award qualification.

The basic contextual knowledge and ancillary skills required for fieldwork are rarely explicitly included in learning outcomes within the curriculum, despite being recognised as a “selling point” of the degree and one of the justifications for the extensive field days requirement for accreditation by the Geological Society of London (The Geological Society of London, 2019). In the framework of constructive alignment this is something of an incongruity (Biggs, 1996). The skills and knowledge are clearly desirable outcomes from the course, yet are not explicitly a part of either the teaching or the learning outcomes. Instead there appears to be an implicit requirement for students to know them or pick them up on their own if they wish to succeed. On the other hand, this is also true of a great majority of “soft skills” which students are also expected to obtain through the course of a degree. “Learn to outfit oneself appropriately for fieldwork” may never appear in stated learning outcomes, but neither does “learn to successfully produce a word processed report”. My personal opinion on this is that whilst documented learning outcomes may be overkill in this case, the importance of these skills should be communicated during pre-trip briefings and discussions during the exercises themselves.

In summary, my personal philosophy of field teaching is that pedagogically speaking geoscience educators generally do quite well at promoting deep learning of a variety of complex and interconnected topics. The existing consolidation activity of field based learning promotes deep reflective learning incorporating “soft skills” in communication, spatial reasoning, resiliency and leadership in a way which cannot be replicated easily in a classroom environment (Schiappa and Smith, 2018). The places where I believe there is room for improvement are in the foundational aspects and in the support of the students who we may mistakenly leave behind. In my own practice I have attempted to alter my mind-set to be more considerate of the diversity of knowledge, ability and background within the student body. I’ve integrated broader approaches to practical field teaching into my own lessons, and tried to explicitly explain foundational concepts which previously were assumed. In the wider context of higher education these measures should help address the key goals of widening participation from under-represented groups, narrowing attainment gaps, and improving student satisfaction.


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